Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Today’s second reading includes two of my favorite verses in the entire Bible, perhaps my favorite Bible verses:
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God”
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, nothing can separate us from God’s love.
These are the verses that I remember, that I even cling to, in the most trying times of my life. I like them so much that I hope these will be the verses read at my funeral!
Today I would like to share with you a deeply personal example, one I have shared publicly only once previously. When I shared it publicly previously I did so partly because my former colleagues had urged me to share more of myself in my preaching. I share it again today only because I hope my experience might be helpful to you all and others.
Nearly nine years ago I had an appointment with then ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson to discuss my future as Executive Director of the newly formed ELCA Communications Services unit at the ELCA churchwide offices in Chicago. I approached that appointment with little or no apprehension. My ministry on the ELCA churchwide staff had gone very well for a long time. I had served as ELCA communication director nearly 13 years at the time of that appointment. When I first arrived in fall of 1992, I had come into a dysfunctional communication staff situation and brought order and peace. The communication staff was now a “well-oiled machine,” as the saying goes, with a happy and highly productive staff. We had just finished another ELCA churchwide assembly and our work for the assembly had gone well, very well by all indications. Our efforts to coordinate and communicate information about the ELCA sexuality studies had also gone quite well, with many lessons learned from earlier difficulties in communicating this controversial topic to the church and the secular news media. Our staff was involved in some long range planning, requested by Bishop Hanson and strongly supported by Hansen’s chief operating officer.
ELCA unit directors serve term calls and at the time of my appointment with Bishop Hanson I had served for three four year terms in the communication director office. My work had been evaluated as outstanding and my appointments by the ELCA Church Council had been unanimous. My most recent four year term had ended the preceding April and Hanson had asked me to stay on at least through the churchwide assembly which approved a new churchwide staffing structure. In the new communication services unit the executive director now oversaw The Lutheran magazine, a major increase in responsibilities. I had already built a good relationship with The Lutheran magazine’s staff members and had just been part of the choice of a new editor for The Lutheran. I was confident that those good relationships would continue.
ELCA communication work, under my direction, was going quite well. For example, we had recently restructured and relaunched the ELCA’s radio ministry, formerly called Lutheran Vespers and now renamed Grace Matters with a wonderful new preacher/host, the Rev. Peter Marty. Our efforts to bring the stop motion animation children’s program Davey and Goliath back to commercial television had gone more slowly than we had hoped, but these efforts were strongly affirmed by people in and out of the ELCA, people of all faiths and even no faith, for whom Davey and Goliath had been a part of their own childhood. I was most proud of the ELCA advertising project from several years earlier. Independent research had shown that, by this advertising, we had actually increased the recognition of the term “Lutheran” by 25% in the USA general population!
I also was pretty well known in the ELCA and the ecumenical and interfaith community because of Davey and Goliath and many years of service in ecumenical and interfaith communication circles in addition to the ELCA communicators’ network, which I had founded, and the biennial ELCA communicators’ conferences which I had begun.
I share all of this detail as background to my appointment with former Bishop Hanson. I was not worried about my future on the churchwide staff. It is true that I had thought of leaving within the next couple of years, after the new structure was safely and strongly in place, but I continued to feel called to that ministry and service to our church and the world. I felt a special responsibility to the staff I had gathered and nurtured over the years. I did not believe my ministry was close to complete by any means. I even assumed that I would be getting a raise in pay since my new responsibilities included the new oversight of The Lutheran magazine.
Thus, I went to my meeting with Bishop Hanson confident and ready to ask for a raise in pay.
That’s not how things turned out!
Instead, soon after we sat down to meet, Bishop Hanson informed me that he planned to advertise the new position of Executive Director for Communication Services, my position, for applicants. Instead of offering me this position, and the raise in pay I was expecting, the Bishop was telling me that he wanted someone else in my position.
I did not know what to say. I was surprised and hurt, even devastated. I asked Bishop Hanson why. He had no simple answer. Basically, he wanted to be able to name his own person to this new communication position. He just wanted someone else, a choice that was certainly his right as Presiding Bishop. It was as simple and hurtful as that.
As I mentioned earlier, I have shared this information in a public forum only once prior to this morning. This is the first time I have shared it since that time several years ago.
And, as I also mentioned earlier, I share it today because I think my experience exemplifies the truth of today’s text from Romans 8: “All things work together for good for those who love God.”
I know that truth of that statement because, of course, former Bishop Hanson’s action ultimately led me here to Mt. Olive. And along the way I also had wonderful calls in Pennsylvania and New York City.
This is not to say that the days and weeks and even months following my meeting with Bishop Hanson were easy or without anger and fear. I went through all of the emotions that those of you who have been fired or laid off or had your positions eliminated know too well. I wondered where we would work, how we would pay our bills, where and how we would live.
And, as some of you know, this happened to me again last year. My “dream job” at Odyssey Networks in New York City evaporated. Odyssey Networks went from 27 staff to less than 10 in less than one year. And this time I was even the human resources staff person, laying off staff colleagues and even laying off myself!
Again, I went through all the emotions that many of you know all too well. Where would be live, how would we pay our bills, where would I work. And this time, perhaps because we were a little older, I also worried about how we would pay for health insurance!
But, in the end, I held onto this text, “all things work together for good for those who love God.” In my darkest of moments, and I assure you there were some dark days, I still believed in the truth of those words from St. Paul, the truth of those words for my life and, I believe, for all of our lives.
And, of course, God did not disappoint since I am now happily here at Mt. Olive, ministering with you all. My installation here two weeks ago only served to confirm this. Kris and I are so happy to be here among you.
In the course of both of these job transitions, I also again learned again the truth of the other verse that I love from Romans 8, that nothing can separate us from God’s love, except ourselves, that God is continually reaching out to us in love, a love that is eternal, and a love that never ends.
As those of you who have gone through a major loss - a job, a divorce, the death of a husband or wife, a parent or child – you name it – as those of you who have gone through a major life loss well know, we, you and I, we do have a choice in these matters. The choice is to move on with your life and live it without fear and anger or to remain tied up in fear and anger and even hate. The choice is to live your life without fear and hurt and anger or to remain tied up in anger, hurt, and even hate.
Some of that anger easily flows to the person or institution seemingly responsible for our loss. For many, that anger quickly moves to God – why did God allow this to happen – and begins to cut us off from the very thing we may most need in such terrible times, the love of God for us, and the community of the church in our lives.
I bear former Bishop Hanson no ill will for his not wanting me to continue on his staff. I had served, by the time I departed, nearly 14 years on the churchwide staff and was a senior executive there in terms of service. I had it easier than many - I was not fired or laid off – my term was up and it was time to move on. I was given an adequate severance package. Bishop Hanson even filled my old position with my principal associate, the person I would have picked for that position.
And, I early on decided that blame or anger would not help me. I tried to take the “high road,” so to speak, as I am trying to do today, especially in terms of former Bishop Hanson. I had to believe, I did and do believe, that all things really do work together for good for those who love God.
When I was laid off again last fall, I again chose not to lay any blame – my former boss was even here for my installation two weeks ago. I know how terrible he feels about all of the staff at Odyssey Networks laid off in the past year.
And, I still believe, I will always believe, that all things DO work together for good for those who love God.
That’s not to say that all things are good. My experience bears that out. Many of you have experienced far worse with your losses – divorce or the untimely death of someone you love dearly or other terrible losses. But, that is where the second verse from Romans 8 comes in. In those not good times, I try to remember that God still and always loves me and that nothing can separate me and us from God’s continual love for us all.
And, in the end, sometimes, that’s all we have and it is, it can be, enough.
I hope the point of all of this personal sharing is clear: I am not asking for sympathy or for you to think less of former Bishop Hanson or anyone. My purpose in sharing this very personal information is only to reinforce what you and I already know – that God’s love for us continues forever. Not everything in this life goes well, but God walks with us in all of our lives. Our choice is to accept that love in our lives, an acceptance that can be very difficult in the terrible times of our lives, and live our lives as if God always loves us because God does.
Many of you know the popular invocation and response from the African American Christian tradition: the words, “God is good” to which the people respond “All the time.” Then the leader says, “All the time” with the people’s response “God is good.”
I believe that with all of my heart and soul. All things can and do work together for good to those who love God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Because, “God is good – all the time.” And, “All the time – God is good.”
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California